Ohio State made a move to “healthy vending” at the start of this year, but students, staff, faculty and visitors can still get their fill of Coca-Cola products from the machines.
In the switch, only foods deemed unhealthy were phased out, leaving some to consider what else the university might do for nutrition on campus.
As aligned in the university’s 10-year, $32 million contract with Coca-Cola, soft drinks are available to be purchased in at least 438 vending machines across campus, but some experts said these drinks can be detrimental to consumers’ health.
“The caloric drinks, aside from providing calories, aren’t really doing anything beneficial for our diets, and are likely doing a detriment to our diet and our health,” said Carolyn Gunther, assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences in the Human Nutrition program. “Diet soft drinks compared to caloric soft drinks are better when you’re just talking about calories, but there’s nothing really inherently good either about a diet soft drink.”
Gunther, whose research at OSU focuses on healthy vending, said although research isn’t definitive yet, the sugar substitutes found in diet soft drinks might also be detrimental to one’s health.
University officials have been mum on whether OSU’s contract with Coca-Cola might hinder healthy initiatives on campus. OSU spokesman Gary Lewis spoke for OSU Business Development on the topic.
“The university continues to promote and encourage health and wellness in a number of campus initiatives for faculty, staff and students,” he said in an email about whether the availability of Coke products affects people’s ability to be healthy on campus.
Gunther said while she thinks OSU is a leader in “improving the diet, physical activity and health of its students,” the university could still do more.
“We would be real trailblazers in the field if we removed the sugar-sweetened beverages … It would be radical,” she said. “That’s one opportunity for improvement because there’s so much data indicating that sugar-sweetened beverages, and that includes caloric soft drinks, are detrimental to our health and put us at an increased risk for obesity.”
OSU chief wellness officer and associate vice president for health promotion Bernadette Melnyk said, however, the university is already taking the necessary steps toward offering more healthy options.
“Offering foods and beverages that meet nutrition standards in vending machines is a promising, low-cost approach for helping people to maintain a healthy weight,” Melnyk said via an email from Lewis. “Providing healthy, nutritious and affordable options for faculty, staff, students and visitors is important, so they can be healthy.”
According to OSU’s Your Plan For Health website, all university vending machines were to include “products selected for healthy snacking” as of Dec. 31, and while no soft drinks were set to be phased out, the proportion of non-sugar-added beverages was to be “a much higher percentage.”
“Coca-Cola is a valued partner in the university’s healthy vending initiative,” Lewis said. “And there are more low and no-calorie offerings (that) are now available at the Medical Center. Everywhere on campus where regular beverages are sold, students will also find a low or no-calorie option available. Additionally, providing choices and making information readily available to consumers is always important and allows students to feel good about the decisions they make based on their own circumstances.”
He added that Coca-Cola intends to make calories more visible to consumers.
“Coca-Cola has rolled out a ‘Calories Count’ Vending Program across the entire campus, providing clear calorie information on vending machines and reminding consumers that all ‘calories count’ in the choices they make,” Lewis said.
Some vending machines on campus, however, did not have calories displayed as of Wednesday night, although some without calories posted did sport signs reminding consumers that “calories count” and to “check then choose.”
In the university’s contract with Coca-Cola, it is outlined that there must be at least 438 vending machines on campus selling Coke products. However, there is no clause in the contract outlining what the proportion of certain drinks in these machines must be.
Interim President Joseph Alutto said he wasn’t sure that the availability of soft drinks would keep anyone from being healthy on campus.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that it hinders the process (of being healthy),” he said in an interview with The Lantern Feb 11. “It opens up conversations for us, and it’s one of the things we look at.”
However, Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietitian in the Columbus area, agreed with Gunther that soft drinks’ availability on campus might be detrimental based on the high concentration of sugar and empty calories in some of the drinks.
“The body doesn’t register those calories like it does with food,” she said. “So the research is showing you can just drink and your body is not registering ‘I just took in 300 calories,’ and so you’re still hungry. So then it can just lead to a lot of unwanted calories. You have a lot of students on campus trying to watch their weight and be healthy and these drinks are just sabotaging those efforts.”
She added, though, that because of OSU’s deal with Coca-Cola, doing away with soft drinks on campus might not be feasible, but the university has a responsibility to take other approaches to creating healthy options.
“I understand the university has a deal (with Coca-Cola),” Kuzemchak said. “And I’m sure it’s a very lucrative deal. And I understand that they can’t eliminate those but I think definitely making sure there is water, bottled water as well as water fountains (is important).”
Kuzemchak said eliminating soft drinks in vending machines would be a healthy move, calling it the “final frontier” for becoming a more healthy campus.
Alex Lewis, a third-year in medical dietetics, said she chooses not to drink pop because she considers herself “slightly more health conscious” than others.
“I guess I just know what makes my body feel good and what makes it not feel good, so I do the best I can in terms of that,” she said. “But nobody’s perfect, we always harp on ‘everything in moderation.’ So there’s nothing bad about having one Coke, but once you get into the bad habits, it kind of goes downhill.”
She added, though, she thinks the university is taking necessary steps to addressing nutrition on campus through initiatives such as healthy vending.
“With each passing day, we’re getting closer to maximizing nutrition on campus, because with each year there are new ideas and new energy on campus, so I think that’s a positive thing,” she said.
Tori Gosy, a first-year in biomedical science, said she has taken advantage of the healthier vending options.
“I have noticed the changes because this semester (I’m) trying to go for a more healthy approach, because last semester I was more busy and didn’t really think about it,” Gosy said. “We’re college students so we’re busy, and we don’t have time to stop, and so we go for whatever’s easiest. So I think that’s great (that there are more healthy options).”
She said she doesn’t think the abundance of soft drinks available in vending machines affect students too much.
“I don’t think it stands in the way. Obviously there’s temptation if there’s a machine filled with water bottles next to a machines filled with soda, you’re going to be more tempted (to choose soda),” she said. “So (the soda vending machines) are there, and it’s good people have the option but it’s not forced on us.”
While Kuzemchak said the university providing the option for students to choose healthy snacks is a step, she noted those options must also be affordable to actually benefit students.
“Just making sure students have access to these healthy things, I think that is No. 1, and to make sure those things are affordable, too,” she said. “So often the healthy stuff is more expensive, the salad is more expensive than the burger, whatever it is — just making sure students can afford to make those choices if they’re made available.”
Gunther agreed that convenient, healthy options need to be the most accessible to students.
“So I think if we’re trying to be the healthiest campus in the U.S., including our faculty, staff and students, then it is for sure a good first step to have only healthy options available in vending, in part because students are so reliant on convenient sources of food,” she said. “Students are by definition living very hectic lifestyles that are sometimes erratic, you know, their schedules are, so there is a heavy reliance of college students on vending as a source for purchasing foods and beverages in part just because of the stage of life that they’re in.”